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Al Qaeda confession leaves many questions unanswered

AFP | March 15, 2007

With no outside witnesses to a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, the confession of a top Al-Qaeda operative to a litany of terrorist plots including the September 11 strikes has raised a host of unanswered questions.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, long believed to be the chief architect of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, confirmed in a secret military hearing that he was responsible for the strikes "from A to Z."

But the surprise was that he also claimed responsibility for at least 30 other plots, some of them previously unknown, most of them unrealized, and nearly all on a nightmarish scale that would have shaken the world if he had succeeded.

Was he just grandstanding? Or deluded? Or deceiving his captors? Or just coming clean because he was proud of what he had done?

With no media and other outside observers at the March 10 hearing at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there is little to go by except a censored, 26-page transcript released by the Defense Department Wednesday night.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he did not believe there was a video taped record of the hearing.

He would not say whether Mohammed's extensive claims were considered credible.

"As far as any judgements and assessments, I'll leave that to the process that is formal and well defined and is rigorous for evaluating these kinds of things," Whitman said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow declined comment to avoid "command influence" over a military commission that might one day try the Al-Qaeda operative.

Mohammed, however, has not been designated for trial by a military commission and unless charges are brought, the process ends with the March 10 hearing, which was to establish his status as an "enemy combatant."

Mohammed spoke in broken English for much of the hearing, according to the transcript, but his rambling and seemingly disjointed oral statements seemed at odds with the image of a master terrorist running multiple large-scale plots at a time.

Yet in a written statement, he also chillingly declared that he decapitated journalist Daniel Pearl "with my blessed right hand."

Paul Butler, a former Pentagon detainee affairs official who followed the cases closely, said there is no doubt that Mohammed was one of Al Qaeda's key operational masterminds.

"His operational skills, his strategic skills I think were absolutely vital to Al Qaeda," he said in a telephone interview.

"I don't know if he had a direct operational role in some of these other plots that he was outlining like the Bali plot, I'm not really sure, but how much worse can it get (than the September 11 attacks.)"

Mohammed's list of operations included "second wave" attacks on skyscrapers, suspension bridges, the New York Stock Exchange and other financial centers and landmarks in the United States and Britain.

He said he planned attacks on US warships, oil tankers, military bases in South Korea and Turkey, embassies, NATO headquarters in Brussels in a global struggle against America.

"A lot of these plots he's referring to may have been conceived, planned out but not operationalized," said Butler. "They obviously need cells to carry out some of this stuff. And some of it was probably done prematurely."

Human rights activists said the military proceeding gave Mohammed an opportunity to present himself as a warrior, rather than a criminal, and raised concerns about alleged abuse and torture.

They pointed to deleted portions in the transcript when the head of the panel alludes to allegations by Mohammed that he was tortured before being sent to Guantanamo in December from CIA prisons overseas.

Whitman said the Defense Department would investigate allegations of mistreatment while a detainee was in its custody. But he indicated it was the CIA's responsibility to probe any allegations of abuse that occurred prior to a detainee's arrival at Guantanamo.

Eugene Fiddell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said he did not doubt the transcript was an accurate account of what transpired at the hearing.

But he said, "I don't know what his demeanor was, his physical appearance, nobody seems to have asked him any questions about the specifics of what he had to say."

"The other thing is he asked for witnesses and the witnesses were denied as irrelevant, which strikes me as peculiar," he said.

"What I think is he may have a date with the hangman. That might be his fate," he said.



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